tv History Bookshelf Annette Gordon- Reed Andrew Johnson CSPAN January 6, 2019 8:00am-9:01am EST
she argues he was unable to provide leadership to a nation recovering from the civil war. this was recorded at the philadelphia library in 2011. it's about an hour. >> thank you very much. be here again.to i love this venue, i get lots of good questions which will save time for the end. is an interesting occasion for me, this is actually the first time i've been up in front of an audience talking about andrew johnson and forgive me if i say jefferson occasionally. [laughter] to make sure check i did not have jefferson and
there were a should of had johnson because the temptation was actually quite great. told me thehad number of years ago at any point in my life that i would have written a book about andrew johnson, i would have told them they were crazy. it's not that i don't think he's an interesting person, he really is, it's not that i didn't know anything about him, but for most of my career as a historian, i have tried to avoid the period of reconstruction and it sounds strange for someone who writes about slavery which is a difficult topic to write about. but i find it easier to deal with 17th-century and 18th-century attitudes about race and slavery than i do dealing with reconstruction. something about it is just maddening to me. i think what it is that there was a moment of opportunity. when i think of the people in the 17th and 18th century who have very primitive ideas about many things in the world, you
know that there are lots of things that they just don't know. i cannot totally forgive them, but it's not as irritating to me, exasperating to me as the time when you have photographs, things that are part of the modern era. and you feel closer to those , they seem more like austin someone in the 18 orbit 17th-century what i'm writing about the development of labor in virginia or monticello. reconstructionut in this moment of hope, it makes me angry. .'m able to be detached the further back you go, but that moment it makes me angry when i think about what could have happened and what did not happen and how close we were, how close the country was to a -- racial healing, making america one for everyone.
johnson would not have been my topic of choice. i read about that era because i have to but it would not be something that i ever thought i would actually study and write very much about it. but i got a phone call one telling me that i was going to be getting a letter and talking in general, and i did get this letter in which he asked me to write the biography of andrew johnson for the american president series which concise bookrt, about american presidents. and they get people who actually fit, thomas jefferson. but gary hart did a book, george mcgovern did lincoln. it is a mix of historians and not historians looking at these presidencies, telling the basic stories but also giving your own individual spin on it.
this and id me to do guess he figured i would put my individual spin on it. i agreed to do it because arthur asked me to do it and i had great respect for him from thomas jefferson, we were both on the advisory committee for that and also because paul golub was the editor, the general series editor for the serious, he was my editor for the book i jordan. vernon this is two friends, you know how it is when friends ask you to do things. i said sure, i put aside my misgivings. fascinating topic, there's so much material, but i wondered if i would be able to curb my natural feelings of thisathy about looking at particular time in american history and i agreed to do it. that was many years ago, this book i confess is long overdue.
in between saying i would do that i wrote about monticello which took a lot of time and energy and i came back to this and finished it. i'm very glad that i did. the first thing i had to do was think about how do i approach this? andrew johnson is not known by lots of people, not loss is known about him. one thing people probably know is that in almost every survey of rankings of american presidents, he is at the bottom. he's in the bottom five. ince 1997, i participated these surveys and sometimes i look at the results, sometimes i don't, but he's usually in the bottom five. buchanan is usually the worst, but he's in the bottom five. this past year but i didn't participate in the survey for the first time, i quickly fill them out, but i didn't this time. he made it to the last. he was the worst president.
just in time for the book. [laughter] in some surveys he's considered one of the worst and this year, the worst. get down to that point, it's really splitting hairs. what the real story would be. but that's a difficult issue, how to use it down and write a book about somebody who is judged the worst of anything? well, just because someone is the worst, or near the worst, does not mean that they are not important. and that's the first realization i had. ofs man was president at one the most pivotal periods in american history. when the a moment country could have gone one way or the other way, and he had a central role to play in that. it hit me that it's very important to focus on the life of andrew johnson because i really do believe that some of the decisions he made during that time affect us even today.
and the choices he made, the choices he did not make, his attitude, his leadership style, all of those things help to make us who we are. for those reasons, you have to pay attention. history is not just about the people you like, all the people you love and that you would love to have dinner with and spend time with. it's about people who did things that were important, that helps put us on the path to where we are now. and he is definitely a person who had that kind of role. once i made my mind to do this and understood how to approach it, it is relatively easy to sit down and get to work and try to tell his story in a way that would illuminate what american life is like and what it was like during the time that andrew johnson lived. is different from jefferson in many ways, but the first problem is that johnson
did not learn to write until he was in his late teens. early, hise married wife taught him how to write. in those days, reading and writing were different, very separate things. many people who were taught to read were taught to read the bible. but writing was not something that people thought necessarily went together. and so, his parents were illiterate, neither of his parents could write or read. we know they could not write because we have no record of them writing and people said that they were illiterate. and so he did not become literate until he was a young man. and that poses a problem because even though he learned to write, he was never very comfortable doing it and at one point later on, he mentions that he sort of hurt his arm. explained that of the reason he did not write, but
most people think it's because he was very self-conscious about it and his writing most of his life, he was self-conscious about it. if you look at the papers of andrew johnson, there are many more letters to andrew johnson thanandrew johnson -- andrew johnson wrote to other people, and that poses a problem for a biographer right there. we do not have his inner voice. with jefferson, you have 18,000 letters that he wrote over his life and other kinds of documents and other things. and even though he remains an enigma to lots of people, there's enough to sort of craft some sense of what he's thinking, what he's feeling, and who he was. with johnson you are at a disadvantage because we don't really have that to the same extent. the letters we have that show when he's a young man show lots of misspellings and lots of phonetic spellings of things and it's difficult to wrap your mind me,nd -- i mean, it was for
difficult to wrap your mind around who he really was because we just don't have the kind of record that you would typically have. not for someone like jefferson, but other people who were president. that's a big problem. and because we don't have lots of his letter and there's not a huge repository of him explaining what he's doing, we don't have lots of stories about him. there is another biography, the principal biographer of andrew johnson is a man who unfortunately died last year. i was hoping to be able to finish this book and show it to him because he's the one who went out and wrote a 500 page book about johnson. and he has covered lots of the territory. my job was to cover some of the same territory more concisely but also put my spin, my view of johnson onto the picture. but what he has found, people what they are
doing smaller or general biographies of andrew johnson. and there's not that much more. there had to be another approach to it and that's one, that's where my expertise or my study of race relations in slavery comes in handy. it's interesting to think about the beginning of america and come to a point where america falls apart. and that has to be put back together again. so to start out with this as luminoust is not as i'm typically used to, but a person who i said is very interesting, considering where he came from, how did somebody like this go from being a literate, a person his parents were very poor, to being someone who is in the highest office in the land? he's born in north carolina, to parents who were illiterate.
his father died when he was three, his mother was a seamstress and she also worked as a washerwoman in other people's homes. this was a thing that caused a lot of talk. people suggested later on that maybe andrew johnson was not the son of his father. that he was illegitimate. and i've gotten some criticism for mentioning this in the book, mentions it ass well, but what i tried to do instead of mentioning it, i wanted to talk about the context , to say something about how class affected the way people viewed andrew johnson from the very beginning. because his mother worked outside the home, worked as a people felt free to say things like that about the family. i really doubt if she had been a married woman, quote unquoted respected woman, if those rumors
would have been spoken about during that time. was the very beginning, he not just for, but his family was seen as really marginal. and there's a difference between what people would call the deserving poor, poor but striving people, and people seem as really marginal. again, his mother remarries a man who was as poor as she. doesn't really improve their circumstances very much, and it gets so bad that she has to apprentice or two children. so andrew johnson was apprenticed to a tailor when he was 10 years old, his brother a couple of years older. he was supposed to be in the friendship until he was 21. todidn't take that long become very good. at 10 years old, he's herenticed to a tailor and actually runs away, yet his brother run away and there's an ad, the language that i
reproduced in the book, basically a runaway servant ad, the kind of thing you would expect to see people more familiar with runaway slaves. reward, catherine, bring him back, we'll pay you. this is the future president of the united states, this is what happens to him. he runs away, he doesn't come back. off and gets a job as a tailor and another shop and becomes very good at his job and an older man, as when he's a politician, a prominent politician, he makes suits for people. it's kind of cool, you think of a president who can make soup. , the gender thing doesn't matter, he's a tailor. is alor makes, that masculine thing to do, that was his way of giving to people. and very practical, real-world
experience that he has. low. starts out very, very and one of the things i talk about is comparing him to lincoln, whom he unfortunately, this is about the worst business, it's really tough. lincoln was a tough act to follow. service but i talked about, he's almost always mentioned as the best president. so you go from the best to the worst. in one terrible moment. what you have, you go from lincoln to andrew johnson. so he suffered by comparison. that he hadt failings which we'll talk about, but he came after someone who was amazing to people. in good ways and bad. but a very towering figure to andrew johnson. origins that seem
to make him, in some ways, well, it strengthened lincoln. canship sometimes strengthen people in particular ways, strengthen them in empathy, so forth. but i think my take on johnson is that his hard life, being looked down upon, being thought of as trash, it made him hard in lots of ways. and someone asked me, you would think that kind of upbringing would make an sympathetic to black people. sympathetic to slaves, but no. the other side, or that can do -- to makeyou for you look for somebody to look down on, somebody below you. i think he took comfort, perhaps, like many poor southern whites, i may live in a shotgun shack, i may not have very much, but i'm white. ms better than these people over there. -- and that's better than these
people over there. if you want to maintain that there is always somebody you can look down upon, i think that seems to be the path he took in life. and to the detriment, his own personal demons, really ended up affecting the course of history in the united states of america. while these in the tailor shop, he's very smart, he listened to men who would come to the tailor shop to read to the tailors. about civic engagement, you know that there are people who can't read. and a man would come and read. he would read about speeches and johnson loved speeches. the guy gaveooks, him the book, he loved it so much. and anytime he needed inspiration he would go back and read this book of speeches. at some point he realizes
because he gets into a debate with a person and the shop, they do the equivalent of taking it outside verbally, they decide to invite people to watch them argue. it becomes clear that he has a talent. and a talent for public speaking. him tot also links lincoln because lincoln was a good speaker as well, but a different type. he could be very, very rough. he was good, he was sarcastic and aggressive and people have not really seen anything like it. and so, his fame grew. people suggested that he might stand for office, which he did. he was very ambitious, a good businessman. even though he started out poor, he made the right kinds of investments and he bettered himself financially. he went into politics and he climbed the ladder, every single rung up to the presidency. thing, anresting interesting comment on american life that someone could start
out as low as he did and go to where he went. even though i can be somewhat hard on him in the book, there's no question that he was an extraordinary person. the -- paulof gollum, my editor, he has edited all of the ones done so far, he said all of these people are extraordinary. it's not like somebody is just sitting around one day and says ok, i'm going to the white house. there's something there, people see something in that person. far, only he is involved in this, he says, i should go for that position, i should be at the top. and he was like that himself. success describes his and how he fashioned himself, tried to fashioned himself after his hero. he comes of age during the age
of jackson. unionist, he was a foron man, he campaigned the homestead act. lots of things about him seemed very progressive. a you know, populism has double-edged sword. lots of times, populists are in favor of measures that you would think would be progressive. he was for the homestead act, giving to four people, land. he wanted public education, he was always for public education, thinking back on his own life and how deprived he was. he wanted a better shot for people, people who weren't privileged. the catch was, he only wanted that for whites. he was for the homestead act, as i said, but when reconstruction came, and it was time to give land reform, the republicans in
congress wanted land reform to give former enslaved people land. to buy them the kind of independence that johnson and others understood was needed. that's what land meant. you don't work for people, you can grow euro and food, you can subsist on your own plot and you are not beholden to anyone. he wanted that for whites, but he didn't want that for blacks. this populist part, the racist part of it, inhibited his thoughts about how this might be expanded to include everybody in america. he makes his political run thinking of himself as a champion of the common man, he is for the union. no trouble whatsoever as a succession list. many, evennated before the war, he alienated people like jefferson davis
because of his support for the homestead act. planters did not like the idea of giving poor white people land. would not have used the term, but they thought it was like welfare. why are you giving these people land below-market rate? why don't they go out and work for it? why do they deserve this? he was all for it. beginning, there were things that furthered his antipathy toward southern planters. he came up making enemies all along the way. lincoln gets on the ticket because lincoln decides that he wants to signal to the south that there was a future. the north and the south had a future together. it was a symbolic gesture of unity for him to pick a southern -- from the border states, he's
in tennessee, he has moved to tennessee to put them together and say look, even though the south is not participating in elections, i am willing to have a southerner on the ticket. one of these days, we can get back together again. so he ends up on the ticket, lincoln replaces hamlet who was from maine. severity is as vice president, this person who started out illiterate up until early manhood is vice president of the united states. and people hated that. there were many people who said this is not the kind of man who should be in this office, it's degrading. and reading these kinds of things, i even managed to feel a bit sorry for him as you hear people ragging on him. but at the inauguration, he's drunk. it was actually kind of fun to write, i had a lot of fun. those been ill and in
days, they thought whiskey was the cure for everything. maybe people think that now, but he drank too much whiskey. it would have been amazing if something like that were happening today, if you can imagine on youtube, on cable tv. all of these things people said, we told you, you let those kind of people into those kinds of positions, this is what they are going to do. lincoln never stood by him. people said you should dump them. lincoln said no, and he is not a o drunk. andy i s n lincoln was killed not long after. and people are, of course, mortified. the country was traumatized, people in the north were traumatized. people in the south may have been happy about it but they were not really celebrating it because they had just been defeated in war and they were in
no position to gloat about something like that even if anyone -- it was a traumatic time period. and there's johnson, who has to rise to the occasion during those days. during the days immediately after lincoln's death, he does rise to the occasion. ,ll the thing that people said his performance as vice president has gone away, he knows what to do, symbolically, he really rises to the occasion. and there's a honeymoon for him free time period -- for a time period until they get into reconstruction. and when i tried to record all of this, they begin to realize that he is not going to have any support whatsoever for the notion of black political rights, any kind of rights for friedman after the civil war.
after theed men civil war. he begrudgingly accepted abolition, he was a slaveholder himself. he was not a large-scale slaveholder, he did not have a plantation, but he was a porter of slavery, animate -- adamant about black inferiority. he said everybody had to admit that white people were superior and we should try to raise them up but every raise them up, we should raise themselves even further so that the distance will always be the same. that was his plan. he said this is a white man's government and it will remain a white man's government. when somebody says that out loud and says it adamantly, over and with and you have a policy republicans in congress saying black votes, land reform, some sort of political life, you realize the president and congress, that's what it was all about.
his visions of the south, bringing the south back into the union did not encompass anything about changing black people's' status of the undertaking than out of legal slavery and that was a battle joined between him and the republicans that would eventually lead to his impeachment. a person who wrote a book, a barber started the book out lamenting the fact that when people write about johnson, always into care about is reconstruction and impeachment. but mainly reconstruction. and then he says, there's not much else. so he has this grand plan to talk about all the other aspects of andrew johnson's presidency, but its reconstruction. we buy alaska. there's some problems in mexico. but those things were handled by the secretary of state. most of his time spent on reconstruction.
trying to thwart the efforts of republican members of congress who wanted to transform the south. he believed that the south really had not seceded. his view was that secession was illegal and because it was illegal, but never left, jefferson davis was not really a president, there was no confederate states of america, there was nothing, that did not exist. and once the war is over and you bring everybody back in, like rewinding the tape. except the slavery part. of it andlavery out let the south go back to exactly what it was before fort sumter, before there was any conflict at all. that's a tough position to think of. 4 million people who had been freed at this point, so what do you do with them? there were people who realized that called for something, but he said no, the constitution
does not allow what you are attending to do. anything, he was very much, he said, a proponent of the constitution. he saw himself as the guardian of the constitution, but he had what i call sort of a cafeteria style approach to the constitution. i mean, things that he liked were constitutional. things that he didn't like were unconstitutional. the constitution clearly says that congress has the right to set rules for the governance and everything having to do with the district of columbia. everything having to do with the district of columbia. so when congress gives black people the right to vote, he vetos it and says it's unconstitutional. well, that is in the constitution. this is not even like some kind of interpretation of it. so you get a sense of what constitutionalism means to him. "i like it, it's constitutional. if i don't, it's not." so he thought he was in the right protecting the constitution. the republicans thought, "wait a
minute, something has to change here. we have to transform the south. you can't just have people are wandering around there in 4/5 status." i don't know what he thought, what they wanted other than that they were supposed to be under the domination of whites. he really hated the southern grandees, the plantation owners, and he wanted to punish them. he thought they had led the south into war. he had this strange notion that southern planters, the large scale planters and slaves were in a conspiracy against poor white people. and so he blamed them for the war. that the blacks and the -- the enslaved people and their masters, they were in league trying to keep poor whites down. and at first he talked about punishing these people, but then he realized, my greater enemy is not those southern people but southern planters, rich
aristocrats. my enemies are the people in the north, the republicans, who want to change the south. and what he opted to do instead of punishing them was to put them back in power. and so not only does he try to -- he try to thwart the so-called radical republicans, he puts all of the people who had been in -- he helps to put back into power all the people who who had been in power before the war, the very people whom he called traitors and said he wanted to punish, punish them. he brought back the lenient terms. he didn't require the sort of oath people had to swear to. he dispensed with those. the oaths who said the loyalty oaths, he dispensed with a lot of those and brought them back into power. finally the republicans get angry about this, and they bring on -- they impeach him, which was and remained a very drastic remedy according to most americans. they see it as a drastic remedy.
we have only done this twice in our history, try to remove a president from office. he survives a conviction in the senate by one vote. people think that really we could talk a little bit about this in the question and answer period, but people felt that he only had maybe a year or so more to go on his term, and he would have been out anyway. the second thing was the person who would have taken over from him, ben wade, was considered a wild eyed radical. he believed in things like women voting, which of course, made him like, you know, a martian. like he was from mars. and so what came after -- what would have come after him and the fact that he didn't have very long to go on his term and some other things -- he actually made some deals with people about this. they voted only -- he escaped conviction by one vote.
he is nevertheless sort of a ruined president after that. he keeps vetoing bills. he is getting -- he is overridden. he has hopes of making a comeback, but his real plan was to unite conservatives in the north and the south to create another political party to try to bring -- to take the country back. that was his sort of idea. that it had gotten away from him and he needed groups of the most conservative people, wherever they lived, regardless of party, to sort of band together and take back the country. it didn't work. he leaves office. he doesn't, he can't get the nominees -- the democrats don't really -- the democrats at this time they're not democrats as you know like now. the parties have sort of flipped from where they were. they didn't trust him. and the republicans surely weren't going to have him. so he goes back to tennessee and begins to plot his vindication. he runs for office. he's unsuccessful at first, but he then is returned to the senate. and he sees this as the
vindication that he was right all along. he goes back up into a body that had tried to kick him out, and he's there only for a few months, and he dies in 1875 of a stroke on a trip back to tennessee. so it is a -- it's an amazing story of a person who is, as i said, enigmatic and probably will be forever closed to us in some really, really significant ways just because he didn't write. he didn't -- we don't have his voice very much. there's some question about his formal papers, how many of those things were probably prepared by other people. but we certainly don't have the kind of day-to-day, you know, statements about his -- statements from him. a few anecdotes from family about him. the andrew johnson homestead has a website that has information
about him as a slave holder. but not, again, not huge reams of material about this person whom i think as i said was one of the most -- had one of the most significant effects on american life of anybody during an american history even though he's judged as the worst president. thurgood marshall, in one of his opinions, one of his dissents, i believe it was -- maybe it was in baki he wrote -- i'm not sure it was bakim but he said if -- it was baki, but he said if america had done what it was supposed to have done during this time period, he doesn't cite andrew johnson but he talks about this reconstruction period as a sort of lost opportunity. and i think you can't blame -- you cannot blame one person for all the good that happens or all the bad that happens, but a president -- and this is my approach in the book -- a president is the leader of the country, is a symbolic leader.
people in times of crisis -- people don't look to the supreme court or the congress. there's too many of them. the president is the energy of the government. and the president exercises actual leadership and symbolic leadership. and the kind of leadership that he exhibited during this time period wasn't enough to make -- he didn't ruin everything all by himself. but he made it much more difficult for the right thing to be done, and that's the real tragedy, i think, of his presidency. but again, that's why i think more people should know about andrew johnson because i really do believe that he's helped to make us who we are today. i mean, think about land reform. think about the difference in wealth, the production of wealth in the black community is in former slaves that had land. most of them instead of being sharecroppers. the difference between owning your own property and renting it from someone else. now, people say, "yes, but we got something good out of it. we got the 14th amendment." because his recalcitrantance about all the laws he was passing the civil rights bills
and all those things forced them into passing the 14th amendment, and that's a good thing. but think about, think about the lost, all the losses if he had not opposed land reform and if he had not opposed black political rights. if blacks had been exercising political rights from the 1860's or had land from the 1860's as opposed to what happened, he set us back. set the country back and set black people back tremendously because of his, the failure of his leadership, or i should say -- he wouldn't say it was a failure of leadership, but from the way he exercised his leadership. he said that he wanted to preserve the country as a whiteman's government. and he was actually able to do that for the longest period of time. and in historical circles up until the civil rights movement, he was seen by many as a good president.
if you read stories -- so-called dunning school, a school of historians out of columbia and other places who championed johnson as a hero who helped stave off negro rule, you know, worthless negro rule in the south, i mean essentially, that historical school existed into the 20th century. w.e.b. dubois wrote a book called "black reconstruction" and he said, as he was wont to do, set the record straight. very, very clearly and there are other people -- and once he did that, other people began to take a look, a second look at reconstruction. the people who were congress people -- you know, if you see "birth of a nation", you know, they got blacks in congress sitting there eating chicken and bare feet. these are some of the most educated people. these were really, really educated men, talented people who were in these offices, and that whole "birth of a nation" dunning school business really propped up andrew johnson because it made it look like what -- his attitudes were the correct ones.
after dubois and others, certainly by the civil rights movement, people began to take a different look at reconstruction and understood that he was more of a problem than any kind of solution. so i'm glad, i have to say, even though it took me a long time to do it, and it's difficult to write about someone who, you know, you can hold responsible for lots of bad things that happened, and you have to try to have enough detachment to present his good points as well as his bad points, and i hope i've managed to do that. and -- but i do think i make very strongly the case that he is a figure that we cannot ignore. that he was just there at too
important a time period for him to be unknown to most people because i think we can explain a lot about who we are by looking at his life and looking at, you know, the kinds of things that he did during reconstruction. actually the trajectory of his life is a very, very american story in good ways and in bad ways. with that i would like to take your questions. [applause] >> thank you very much. we have got hands already. >> do you see any parallels between the take back the country movement in andrew johnson's time and the tea party and sarah palin? annette: well, you know, parallels in the sense that americans revere the constitution, and some people say too much. you know, that it's almost like a sacred text, and anytime we are in trouble, or any time we want to make a point, we use the constitution, and say we want to get back to that document, even
people on the left. i mean, not as much as i think they should, but people to the left look to the constitution as a protector. i think it's different because, it is different in this sense. there's been a war -- you know, almost 500,000 people died both regions, certainly the south decimated. these people, this was really life during wartime. this is not life during a wartime, that kind of wartime. we've got wars going on overseas, but this is hyperbole, i think at this point, taking our country back. the country hasn't gone anywhere. you know what i mean? these people are in a real -- they took up arms against one another and fought one another. and those were really serious life and death kinds of issues. i think that this is, they're using that rhetoric, but it's not to my mind as serious as the time period that those people
were in. it's more -- it's rhetoric. it's sloganeering. i mean, i am not saying it's not people have legitimate concerns and they are not a serious about them. but johnson, we're talking about life and death certainly in the south. if you read eric foner, who wrote the big book on reconstruction, and i relied on that in pointing me to some materials about some of the things that were going on. i mean, you know, this guy talked about going to a village in texas, a town in texas, and seeing 28 bodies hanging from trees, men, women and little children, blacks, just -- the rivers with bodies floating down it. i mean, this was after war is over, and people turned on blacks and tried to reassert their control. they were playing, they were playing for keeps back then. i don't know what this is. it doesn't compare to that i don't think, even though they
might think it does. >> another question right here in the fifth row -- fourth row. >> thank you for coming to this free library of philadelphia and for your excellent talk. could you talk a bit about education? i have never quite understood why the radical republicans didn't press and push much more resources into providing education for the free slaves. annette: oh, well, they did through the freedmans bureau. there is a poignant stories about people, little kids sitting next to grown people, you know, everybody trying to -- that's what they tried to do. but those schools were attacked, night riders, people who tried to be teachers in them. there was a lot of a backlash because they didn't want people, the folks who -- they didn't want blacks in the schools. they wanted them in the fields. they definitely tried to do that. the freedman's -- higher education, howard university
started by general howard, and they tried to do that, but in lots of these little places, they were not in control of all of this. and certainly once the military leaves, you know education becomes really, really, really sketchy, even more sketchy for blacks during that time period so there was -- they tried, but there was lots of opposition and violent opposition in many, many places. >> the lady on our left in the third row. >> when did johnson free his slaves or did he free them? annette: they, after the end of the war, they became freed men. not before then. he may have freed a couple before then but not until after this. >> right here. >> what do you think about johnson's arguments that secession was void abinitio? annette: well, you know lincoln said that too, that it's
illegal. that secession was illegal, and the reason he said it was because if secession is illegal, then the president exercises his power, under the powers to quell rebellions and so forth. if secession is illegal and -- legal and they left, then you could say they're like territories, and congress rules the territories. so it's -- as a matter of a political of the separation of powers, it was a political, political argument, but again, lincoln died, so we don't know what he would have done or what he really thought, but for him it was, he thought that was an abstraction, it was a pernicious abstraction. jackson took it very, very much to heart, he was very literal-minded on that. i think that, well, part of me says if they thought they could leave, they left.
i mean, jefferson davis did set up a government. it's hard for me to pretend that they were not real. that what they had wasn't a real thing and i think congress -- they should have been governed as territories, and i think they should have kept the military rule over them a lot longer than they did to actually reconstruct them. so i understand the legal argument about it. but practically, realistically, they set up their own government. and they stopped participating, and they went their own separate way for a time period. >> yeah, right here in the third row. >> what was basically the base of support was for johnson? after all he was regarded as a traitor by the southern diehards and as an unreliable president by the northern abolitionists. annette: well before, you know
-- you mean while he's president? while he's president, he didn't have that much support. i mean, he gets to be president because lincoln gets killed. and at this point, he begins to -- he wants to try to make a base of these conservatives i talked about by being lenient with the former southern planters. some of them are still planters, but he tried to butter them up by not punishing them the way he originally said he was going to do. he wanted to build this party. and he wasn't really successful at doing it. public opinion varied about him. sometimes the northerners liked him, and sometimes they hated him, but once it became clear that he was not going to go along with reconstruction, they
uniformly hated him. so he didn't really -- that's why he couldn't get a nomination after, you know, after -- well, certainly after the impeachment, nobody wanted to have him back. but he really didn't have very much support. he spent most of his presidency trying to build that by, you know, currying favor with the southerners, and you know, sometimes appearing lenient to northerners, but it didn't work. he pleased nobody. he tried to be everything to all people and ended up no place until, you know, he manages at the end to get back to the senate for a brief period of time. but he was not -- it's interesting because he must have -- he was a good politician to a degree, because he couldn't have come from nowhere to where he went. but once he got into office, it was like he was out of -- i think, out of his league. he was out of his depth. so he ended up with not very many friends at all. >> about four rose back in the middle. while we are getting the mic there, do you think he was a tragic figure? annette: do i think he was a tragic figure? gosh.
i think he was a tragedy for this country. >> [laughter] annette: a tragic figure? you know, this is, he didn't -- i can't find anything about him that -- he doesn't -- he didn't seem to have a visible sense of humor in a way. there's not a lot of -- yeah, i would think he's a tragic figure. >> [laughter] annette: i mean, i'm trying -- when i think of tragedy you think of like a hero, you think of somebody, you know, who has a grand, you know, persona and is sort of brought down. i feel -- but i do think in a sense he's tragic because he wanted desperately to rise. and he actually did rise. and it's an amazing story. i mean, how do you -- you can't read until you're 19 years old, and then you're president at some point. that's the grit, the tenacity and which served him well. that's why he was able to stay committed to the union.
i mean, at tremendous personal sacrifice. he was a courageous -- he could have been killed. there were people, many, many people who wanted to kill him that. and he stood fast against all of that. but i think, i don't know, i don't know how much self-awareness he had. see, that's the reason i'm hesitating about this. if you think of a tragic figure, tragic figures, you have some -- i think you have some evidence that they have some awareness of the tragedy. i think he died thinking he was vindicated, and he had done the right thing, and so he wouldn't have seen -- i mean, he was certainly upset about the impeachment and his failure to -- i mean, you know, to make it and get the nomination again, but i think he would have thought he was successful because he was. i mean, he really did save his region from being transformed.
this was the -- wasn't transformed until 1965 really? so he could count himself a success in a way for a very, very long period of time. looking at him, i think, you know, if he had, if he had been a real statesman and if he had -- he didn't have to do everything the radical republicans wanted. but he could have been a great president. you know, if he had made the right choices -- i'll give you an example. this is, this, i think, is very telling about him. at one point in his early career, there was a proposal to bring the railroad to eastern tennessee. and even though his constituents wanted it, he opposed the railroad because if you brought the railroad, people would get to where they're going so
quickly that you wouldn't need inns and taverns. so as not to put inns and taverns out of the business, you can't have the railroads. you know, that makes sense except towns spring up along railroad routes, and people -- i mean, the people had to walk places. he had no horse. when he leaves tennessee, he walks. he has to walk 70 miles to places and stuff like that. they're talking about, you know, dodging mountain lions and so forth. so you have this sense of this lack of vision in a way. >> [laughter] annette: and in a vision -- and so -- but if you don't know where you're deficient, it's hard for me to think of you as a tragic figure, and as i said, because he was successful, he actually did stave off the transformation of the south for many, many decades. so i don't think he would count himself as a tragic figure. >> he's also somebody that would walk 14 miles to go to a lecture. >> [laughter] annette: in the snow.
>> yeah, the lady in the middle. >> you talked about the -- right here. annette: where are you? >> you talked a little bit about his family when he was young. tell us more about his family life as he became an adult? annette: he had his wife, helped him, as i said, taught him to read and write. he had -- we don't really know that much about her. she was an invalid for many years and did not accompany him to the white house. did not stay with him in the white house most of the time. his daughter served as the first most of the time because she was ill. he was someone who seemed consumed by work. he was out giving speeches all the time. he was running for office. he was plotting and planning. i don't get a sense that much of his, of his family life other than that he was married.
he had three sons and a daughter. he -- one of his sons actually ended up committing suicide. he had been -- he was an alcoholic, and that was a great tragedy in his life. i talk a little bit about, in the book, a reference to one of the enslaved women -- one of the women he owned, there was talk that he had children with her. there's no proof of that. the only thing is that he buys her, and she's about 16 years old, and she has two children, you know, who -- she's listed in the census as black and her children are listed as milano, meaning -- mulatto, meaning they were mixed race kids and people talked about that. that that was possibly true. some people criticize me about mentioning that although a person -- i mean, someone has written a book about andrew johnson, his racial views talks about this and other articles have talked about it as well. and i thought, you know, here's, here's a person who was an enslaved person in his household, a young girl.
i thought it was important to mention that, as a possibility, out of deference for her, out of concern that you paint a picture of the lives of enslaved girls at that time period because he could have been. we don't know that he was. but i don't think, you know, when you're talking about a person who's a slave owner, you have to talk about all the aspects of that, not just buying and selling people. so it's not -- we don't get a sense of -- again, this is -- in the comparison to jefferson, where you have lots of letters back and forth between fathers and daughters and grandchildren and all those kinds of things, and people commented on him. one thing that people did say that he liked children quite a bit. he was good with children and they liked him. one of the people who was the person who was -- was the son of a person who was enslaved -- one of his slaves says he even would bounce black children on his knee.
i mean, he liked children, which is sort of interesting when you think about the rest of his life. i mean, he was able to be apparently child-like with children, but you don't get a sense of him as a warm and funny person otherwise. >> we have time for one more question. we'll go to this gentleman right here. annette: no jefferson, i'm sorry. >> you may not want to answer this or even respond to this. but have you ever speculated as to whether a different kind of johnson could have succeeded in vastly rearranging events of the last half of the 19th century? annette: oh, sure, yeah. yeah. and i think he could have.
i mean, he wouldn't have had -- a different kind of johnson would not have had to go along with everything that the republicans had wanted to do. one of the things that he did do that i didn't try to convey, and i talk about it in the book, is that his recalcitrance gave aid and comfort to other southerners. and people said, their letters and comments, you know, we would have accepted anything in the immediate aftermath of the war. we would have accepted anything, any terms, but he gave us hope of a white man's government so we knew to hold out. so i think the role that he played -- i think it's the symbolic, that symbolic role of the president as leader that i think was really important. if he didn't cover -- didn't, hadn't so strenuously opposed voting rights, if he had not sabotaged efforts to bring about land reform -- that is not to
say the south would have rolled over, and would have -- but when you have the enemy down, you know, prostrate, when you got them down, that's when you impose terms and you move forward. and numerous people said, you know, he, his actions emboldened them to be recalcitrant, to pass the black codes, to be, you know, sort of tamp down the, tamp down any move for transformation. so it would not have been the land of milk honey. the south would not have rolled over and accepted blacks as equal citizens. but it wouldn't have been as bad as it was.
and you know, that -- a lessening of the problem -- any lessening of the oppression, i think, would have made a big difference. so yeah, i have thought about it, and i do think, i think his particular brand of presidential leadership was toxic. and it is important for us now to think about where we are, to go back area that is the importance of history, to rewind, kobach and see where we began to go wrong, what kinds of remedies we need to take -- go back and see where we began to go wrong, what kinds of remedies we need to take. we ended up as a person who was strong enough to stand for union and understood the importance of the union, but because of his own personal character, the character issue, was unable to see through the transformation of the south. because to him, that was against everything that he, that he believed. >> please join me in thanking annette gordon-reed. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2018] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org]
>> there is the imperative core roma bell. 1948 film "a day in congress," which traces the work of the 80th congress. >> we must go through many years tolegislative experience stop the majority bill in the house. this constant struggle between the majority and the minority is the very essence of democratic lawmaking. every bill made into a law shall be subjected to the most vigorous examination and debate. american history tv on c-span3. >> this weekend, american history tv is jng